By Doug Hallett
A draft public nuisance bylaw that would curb protests on city-owned property and also give the city more power over bothersome parties on private property was approved in principle by city council this week, unanimously and without debate.
While the need for such a bylaw was approved in principle, the content of the bylaw won’t be finalized until after city staff get more feedback from local residents.
“While we are not debating the specific details of the bylaw at this point, we are directing staff tonight to do public consultation on wording,” Coun. Ian Findlay, chair of council’s operations, transit and emergency services committee, told council Monday.
The contents of the draft bylaw, which first went to Findlay’s committee on Sept. 17, are laid out in the agenda for that meeting on the city’s website, guelph.ca.
Last fall, Occupy Guelph protesters spent nearly three weeks camped out in St. George’s Square before moving their protest to Royal City Park and setting up tents there.
That protest would have violated the proposed public nuisance bylaw, a city official has said.
As currently written, the draft bylaw wouldn’t allow “protests and rallies that extend beyond 24 consecutive hours” unless a permit is obtained from the city. It also wouldn’t allow “camping, dwelling or construction of temporary structures” on city property unless the city has granted a permit.
The draft bylaw says breaches of the bylaw could bring a fine of up to $10,000 for a first offence for individuals and up to $25,000 for subsequent offences, with higher penalties for corporations.
The draft bylaw would also allow the city to bill the owner of property where a “nuisance party” occurs for what it costs the city to take control of the party, and it would allow the city to add this cost to the owner’s property taxes.
Although there was no council debate on the issue at Monday’s council meeting, a print-out of a letter to council from a Guelph woman strongly opposed to the bylaw was distributed to council members and media along with the addendum for the meeting’s agenda. However, Patti Maurice’s email arrived at city hall too late to be included in the electronic version of the addendum, which is available online.
“Freedom for the public to assemble must never be constrained or outlawed, no matter how uncomfortable it may be to observers, or how conflicting it may be to currently held attitudes of any level of government,” Maurice’s letter says.
“A push-back from citizens of a city, province, state or nation is always a sign of a healthy democracy, and that is the purpose of protests and demonstrations. They bring attention to issues that threaten our basic freedoms and rights.”
The letter also points out that banning the erection of temporary structures in parks and on other public property without a city permit could hamper not only protests, but also attempts by the homeless to find shelter. Neither protests nor temporary shelters for the homeless are public nuisances, Maurice writes.
“They may be uncomfortable to behold and may offend our sense of tidiness, but both are outcomes of injustices and attempts to survive.”
Maurice asks council to strike from the draft bylaw the sections related to public protests and demonstrations and to the erection of temporary structures on city property.
“Fear and power are not amiable companions, and when you use both to resolve issues that may be uncomfortable and disruptive it can only lead to a deterioration of community well-being,” she writes.